12 Apr how to handle stress living with chronic illness
One of the most difficult aspects for me living with long term health issues is the stress level. Managing the symptoms, the meds, the hospital appointments, the teenagers at home, the never ending clothes washing, the effing life admin, the finances and of course mine and everyone else’s expectations. There’s just too many balls to keep in the air. When you are living with chronic health issues you are pretty much just expected to get on with it and struggle your way through….somehow. If you are lucky you have a partner or family to help with some practical things, but then that can be laden with guilt and feelings of being a burden. There is also the issue that more stress equals worse health, and often overwhelm, anxiety and/or depression.
What Can We Do?
So what actually helps us to deal with the stress of chronic illness in a life setting? Part of the truth is that it’s never going to be a walk in the park – I am not a fan of toxic positivity. There will always be challenges as society is constructed as a capitalist patriarchy where your physical perfection and output is rewarded, however we can create supportive space within that reality through cultivating somatic (body based) awareness, working with our nervous system and gradually befriending this body of ours. It also helps a lot to understand what is happening inside us when we feel stress as well as what we can do to reduce the intensity of that stress.
Let’s Understand a Bit…
Your body and health may be different to others but it holds a lot of intelligence that is beneath our conscious awareness – and neuroscientists back this up with modern research and testing. Our nervous system which is the interface between our mind, body and our environment is constantly receiving information from inside and outside our body and relaying it to our brain. When our nervous system receives too much information or senses anything that poses a potential “threat” to our physical or psychological safety and stability, it creates physiological and psychological changes to adapt to the pressing situation. This is called the Stress Response and the brain, via our nervous system, tells our body to increase hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, our heart to pump faster, our muscles to contract and tense and increase our breathing rate all so that we can change the stressful situation by either escaping it or fighting it (the fight or flight response). This is meant to be a temporary situation as our body needs to come back into balance, calm and optimum functioning again.
But living with health issues can mean we are living in a chronic state of stress, which means that all these physical changes are happening in the long term as our nervous system is repeatedly telling our brain to be be prepared to run or fight.
Try as we might to tell ourselves that everything is ok, our body senses differently! The part of our brain that deals with rational thinking cannot tell our nervous system that it is ok, because talk is not the language of our nervous system – remember, the stress response is physiological NOT psychological. Our body needs to feel and sense that things are ok. This is how the somatic approach is effective; by intercepting the messages of stress with comforting touch, rhythmic movement, soothing sound, embodied breathing and grounding methods we can introduce a different message to our nervous system and brain.
Here are 3 practices to explore that if you practice regularly will not only help your ability to cope with stress in the moment, but also literally increase your neural (nerve) pathways to be able to access feelings of relaxation and support more easily in the long term.
1.Connection. One of the quickest way to go into a calmer, ‘rest and digest’ state is through connection; connection to yourself, nature, an animal (pet) or a loved and trusted friend, partner or family member. Dr Stephen Porges, Ph.d. Psychiatrist & creator of the Polyvagal Theory, says that as innately social creatures, connection is what makes us feel safer and supported and brings us back to a calmer state. That could look like stroking or even imagining stroking your pet, your friends hand on your shoulder or just his/her presence and soothing eye contact, a short moment outside noticing your natural environment or connecting to self may be placing your hand on your heart as you slow your exhales a little or self massage your neck and shoulders.
2.Shaking. If you feel yourself going into an agitated, restless, anxious state, try standing and shaking out your limbs vigorously and stamping your feet on the ground. Do this for a minute or two and then pause and notice the feel of your feet on the ground. If you still feel all the restless nervous energy, do this process again, coming back to stillness afterwards. This process actively shifts the nervous energy out of your body, allowing your nervous system to come back into a more restful state.
3.Regulated Breathing. Regulating our breathing is not always an appropriate approach, but when dealing with stress our breath is one very effective method for directly reaching the Vagus Nerve which is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system which you might know as the ‘rest and digest’ branch. If working with your breath feels ok for you, start by gently noticing your inhale and exhale with kind curiosity and see if you can start to slowly lengthen your exhale. Imagine letting your exhale go through a large straw, so the breath leaves steadily. Do this for 5 complete rounds of breath and then breath naturally and notice how you feel. If you are still feeling too stressed, repeat the process.